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The West's Irreducible Interests in Central Asia

With the dismantlement of the inherited Soviet nuclear arsenal now under way, it is the apparent lack of well defined long-term goals (apart from "stability") that largely account for Washington's inability to clarify the nature of its engagement in Central Asia, leading it to deal with immediate issues (such as the Tajikistan situation) on a piecemeal basis. There are, however, at least two key areas of central Asian concern (not counting the burgeoning drug trade or the Tajikistan civil war) that directly engage "vital" U.S. interests. These areas are nuclear nonproliferation and energy security.

Nuclear Nonproliferation

Kazakhstan has not only lived up to its treaty obligations on nuclear disarmament but also cooperated with Western operations to prevent the sale of nuclear material from the former Soviet Union to third countries. In the multilateral sphere, Kazakhstan has taken a series of steps to organize a Conference on Interactions and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICBMA), where states will have the opportunity to discuss problems and organizational mechanisms to assure security in all domains. Several preparatory meetings have been held in view of a convocation of the CICBMA. However, but it remains a puzzle why the U.S. has contented itself with private expressions of bilateral support, declining an invitation to join the executive organizing committee of this nascent institution even after that committee explicitly adopted the implementation of a nuclear non-proliferation regime in Asia as one of its principal goals a year ago. Russia and China have begun to take an active part in this committee, which will set the agenda for upcoming meetings as well as any institutional structures. If the West does not act before long, it will risk being shut out of the process. This cannot be to Washington's advantage.

Energy Security

The potential of the unbridled economic development of transnational oil and gas projects in the FSU represents an enormous challenge to the governments (and the publics that they represent) that will carry the social costs of that economic development. There is already an evident shortage of water, whether for drinking or for agriculture, and there is little if any currently uncultivated arable land on which to raise more food for that exploding population. Developing all these resources and bringing them smoothly to market could mean stabilizing global energy balances, making prices more predictable, and reducing Western dependence on Middle East oil. An average annual growth rate of 5% would be necessary in the GNP to cope with the demographic explosion, but GNP is currently declining. Secure and dependable access to the energy resources in the NIS, along with their balanced development, is key to the NIS themselves and the West, as well as to Russia.

In 1995 Russia responded coolly to an American proposal for the International Energy Agency (IEA) to hold an international diplomatic conference on the Caspian. The history and composition of the IEA (it was set up by the G-7 after the 1973-74 embargo) explains in large part Russia's was suspicions: for the IEA to run that conference would have been like giving responsibility for managing international nuclear affairs in the early 1950s to the UN Security Council — where the Soviet Union was outnumbered by the Western powers and diplomatically isolated. Since that American initiative, Kozyrev has been replaced as Russian Foreign Minister by Primakov, who has greater personal authority and is less subject to bureaucratic skirmishes. Perhaps after the November elections it will be a good time to rethink this proposal and reformulate it along Central Asian lines.

What Is To Be Done

Movement towards cooperation in Central Asia on both nuclear nonproliferation and energy security has foundered for want of interest by the great powers outside Asia. For the U.S. actively to promote multilateralism in Central Asia would afford the countries in the region a common voice, decreasing Russia's ability to be arbitrary. At same time, this would not represent a threat to Russia but indeed encourage Russian involvement and even promote the cooperative interest of the oil and gas ministries in their struggle within the Kremlin against other narrower-minded political forces, providing incentives for compromise because there would be something in return. As to the Caspian, this should be couched first of all not in terms of the division of the sea but in terms of the ecological questions. It is well known that the seabed is rising, but the reasons are far from clear and at present under scientific study.

Since the beginning of 1996, U.S. foreign policy has turned towards Uzbekistan as a strategic "pivot" in what threatens to become a "New Great Game". This move is predicated on the search for a fulcrum over which to "balance" against Russia in Central Asia, in order to prevent states there from "bandwagoning" with Russia. This strategy overlooks the promotion of autonomous Central Asian cooperation as a means to guarantee regional security and keep the area out of competing Russian and Chinese spheres of influence. The recent U.S. strategy of favoring Uzbekistan has already yielded a mild short-term dividend, when Uzbekistan blocked a declaration by the Commonwealth of Independent States that would have opposed NATO expansion. However, the much more important circum-Caspian issues cannot be satisfactorily solved by traditional unilateralist diplomacy, because the above analysis shows how in the Caspian region unilateralism in energy questions yields Russian predominance.


Since these issues reach far beyond Central Asia, it may be proper to move towards an entirely new international forum. The point is that Washington has no choice but to sit at the table for the next deal. There isn't even a choice about putting in the ante. The problem is that a preoccupation with the other players prevents the U.S. from dispassionately evaluating its own hand on its own terms. It seems forgotten that no one can get up and leave the room. Washington has to think seriously about playing the hand instead of watching everyone pass on every round. It's a table-stakes game, and the Central Asians will just go bust if there's no action; and it isn't the West that will get their chips.

Copyright © Robert M. Cutler unless otherwise noted.
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URL:  http://www.robertcutler.org/blog/1996/11/the_wests_irreducible_interest.html
First published in Focus (Center for Post-Soviet Studies) 3, no. 11 (November 1996), pp. 1–2.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on November 15, 1996 11:58 PM.

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